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Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2001 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Chris Matthews

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This is 'Freiheit'

This column is the last of three articles serialized from Chris Matthews' new book, "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think" which was just published. Ordering this book, by clicking on the title, helps fund JWR. -- FREEDOM is where my politics begin and end. To me, it's not just some word engraved in marble.

"When an American says that he loves his country," Adlai Stevenson once said, "he means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect."

On my way home from the Peace Corps in Africa 30 years ago, I had a revealing glimpse of how the Third World really views the United States. With little money in my pocket, I needed to live frugally. Because of how I traveled and where I stayed, I could meet ordinary folks and listen to them. It was quite a lesson.

On Zanzibar, I met a young Indian in his late teens who grabbed at the chance to tell a young American what life was like for him on this exotic but appalling island. Regimentation was absolute, whether it applied to hair length or courtship. Even holding hands in public was forbidden.

The only refuge for this lonely victim of repression was his small apartment, which he had transformed into a shrine to anything American. The walls were covered with posters and album covers of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. It was his own little island, to which he had transported the culture and freedom of a far-off land. He could not wait to get me into his tiny temple of rebellion.

I had seen the love that desperate black South Africans, struggling under the historic weight of apartheid, felt for anything American, particularly jazz, that freest of all musical forms. For these men, aspiration and freedom were synonymous with that Promised Land across the Atlantic.

What we often can't see from the vantage point of home is that our country's greatest influence in the world is exerted not by diplomats in pinstriped suits, but by freedom-loving Americans in blue jeans. What people find irresistible about us is not liberty in the abstract, but what comes of it: the music, the clothes, the attitude. This is also, we've learned to our horror, what others find dangerous.

In 1989, I had the privilege to snag a ringside seat at the greatest explosion of freedom in my lifetime -- the fall of the Iron Curtain. My personal brush with this extraordinary epoch began with an April visit to Hungary. This, remember, was the courageous country we had watched stand alone against Warsaw Pact tanks with nothing but the cobblestones from the streets and the occasional Molotov cocktail. Now, years later, I read reports of a "reform movement" and jumped at the chance to learn about it firsthand.

Upon my arrival in Budapest, I was quickly able to see that here was a country straining out from under its East European imprisonment to join the West. The elevator at the Intercontinental Hotel rose and fell to The Beach Boys. The sidewalk caricaturists favored Woody Allen, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe.

Before leaving Washington, I had gotten the name of an economics professor, Gaza Jeszenszky, who was a leader in the "Democratic Forum" -- the rump faction working to overthrow the creaky Communist regime. He lived in an old, high-ceilinged apartment building reminiscent of "The Third Man." While his wife, also a professor, treated my 6-year-old son Michael to crayons and paper in the next room, the soft-spoken Jeszenszky hosted a pipe-smoking British journalist and me to tea, biscuits and a briefing on the incredible work in which he and his allies were engaged.

Calmly and confidently, he described the meetings the forum was holding "in the countryside." We learned about the "writers and intellectuals" attending these meetings. Our host insisted that after all the years of Communist repression and all the failed attempts to change things, this time was different. He spoke of the morale boost he and his fellow activists got from watching Rus

sian Boris Yeltsin stand up to the Kremlin bosses on TV. "Freedom in contagious," he said. Yes, it is. That September, a new Hungarian government ripped down the barbed wire on its western frontier with Germany, allowing 12,000 East Germans to flee its borders. With that miraculous act of political courage, the Iron Curtain was relegated to history's dustbin. Within the year, the country had adopted a new constitution and held free elections: Hungary was now a democratic republic and that hopeful professor with whom I shared tea and sympathy was its Foreign Minister.

In November, I stood in a cold drizzle on the East Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate. The previous Saturday, the faltering Communist government had allowed its people to pass through The Wall for the first time since its crude construction in 1961. A rumor was spreading that the Gate itself, so long a symbol of the city's tragic bifurcation, was about to open.

Moving through the throngs of excited East Berliners, I began asking everyone with whom I could make eye contact what that word "freedom" meant to them. "Was ist Freiheit?" I asked in my extremely limited German -- What is freedom? Slowly, a crowd began to gather around me. In the rain and gloom of a November night, I suddenly had stirred the kind of exuberant give-and-take you now see regularly on "Hardball."

"We really do believe in democracy," a woman pleaded, as though she were speaking through me to the entire Free World. "Let us have a chance!"

Next I asked a young man what kind of system he wanted -- capitalist or socialist? "We want a united Germany where the people can make the choice," he answered.

"We want a socialist country," insisted another.

Then a young woman suggested a mix: Western-style economic freedoms combined with "the caring for the people" of socialist countries.

"I want the freedom to earn what I have worked for and not be forced to do something because I am told to," another man said as I continued scribbling in my notebook.

Finally, I heard the defining statement journalists wait a lifetime to record. "This is Freiheit!" said a serious young man in an army surplus jacket. "This standing in a public place arguing openly about such things as democracy, capitalism and socialism."

"Four weeks ago, we couldn't have done this!" a woman chimed in.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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